Day 12 ~ show vs. tell
[this is two-for-one day because I drafted this up yesterday then forgot about posting it…because I fail at life, I guess…]
One thing guaranteed to turn a group of thoughtful, mild-mannered writers into a riotous mob of disorderly delinquents is to bring up the old writing saw “show, don’t tell.”
I’m not sure anyone really knows what it even means anymore, and I’m not going to try to argue it. Instead, it became something of a launching off point in continuing thoughts I discussed today on Facebook with my friend Susan. It was in all in response to Bill Peschel’s inflammatory (at least among my writerly friends) article, “Publish Your First Draft.” That could really be it’s own topic for today but it’s not. Instead, we drifted into a convo about what writing means to us personally, and how we approach it. Quality? Content? Editing? Revising? Quantity? Where do all these concerns fall on our radar?
I posited that there are two types of writing, that of writing to relate and engage, and writing to tell a story. Do they overlap? Well, in the work of the best writers, they certainly do. I think for the majority of writers (like me) there is some overlap but we focus more on one or the other. Susan related that she wants the engagement more than heavy plotting in what she reads, and her writing reflects that.
“Show vs. tell” fits in here, I think, because it can be argued that “writing to relate and engage” is writing that shows us life through the lens of the writer’s perceptions. Plot is simply a way to move the characters/observations through the world. “Writing to tell a story” is generally plot driven and, well, is designed to tell that story. Again, not saying these are hard and fast divisions. Great writing encompasses both.
Exception: for me, they seem to be hard and fast divisions. My non-fiction writing, that is my memoirs and blogs and essays (such as this post itself) are at least meant to relate and engage. I want to reach out to and connect with people. Certainly, all my writing about grief and mourning is meant for that.
But my fiction writing…I have no high-minded ideals there. My spiritual predecessors are the serial films of yore, and Star Wars, and Star Trek, and a lot of pulp science fiction novels. Yes, a lot of those examples do cross streams — Star Trek was always designed to be both pulp sf and (stealth) cultural engagement. First and foremost, though, is the story.
Which, of course, brings a crisis of identity for me, because aren’t I supposed to do better than that? Am I not always supposed to aim for the highest, most literary hurdle? How can I even write this, a short blog post, with only minor revisions and editing before posting? HAVE I NO SHAME?
…no, I really don’t. It’s taken me my lifetime so far to accept that I am, primarily, a storyteller.
I just want to tell you a thing.